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Friday, October 31, 2014

An Unconvincing Explanation for Ghosts

Today is Halloween, so my topic is predictable: ghosts. 

A few days ago the British newspaper The Independent had an article entitled Do you believe in ghosts? Leading psychologist claims it's 'all in the brain.' The article then discussed the views of Christopher French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at the University of London. French champions the theory that ghost sightings are caused by psychological issues in those who report the sighting.

French is not actually a “leading psychologist” in the sense of being well known. He is the only professor in his Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, whose staff consists only of himself, a research assistant, and some PhD students. French founded the unit himself. Judging from the front web page of the unit's web site, this particular academic unit seems to be basically a kind of ideological arm designed to support Professor French's skeptical prejudices. The third paragraph of the unit's web page creates the strong impression that its investigators have pretty much already made up their minds before they even do their research:

In general terms, Anomalistic Psychology attempts to explain paranormal
and related beliefs, and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms
of known or knowable psychological and physical factors...
Anomalistic Psychologists tend to start from the position that paranormal forces
probably don't exist and that therefore we should be looking for other kinds of
explanations, in particular the psychological explanations for those experiences
that people typically label as paranormal.

Also, the front web page of this unit's web site brags that French is a “Special Advisor and former Editor-in-Chief of The Skeptic Magazine, the UK's foremost and longest-running sceptical magazine.” It even includes a large cover photo of The Skeptic magazine in the middle of the text describing the unit's mission. Since magazines such as The Skeptic are famous for being rigid, inflexible scorners of all things paranormal, and since the very thing French's unit is investigating involves claims of the paranormal, it seems almost as if French is throwing away any pretext of scientific objectivity, and implying that the purpose of his academic unit is to gather evidence for his pet theory that people have paranormal experiences because of psychological issues. This is the opposite of the way that a scientific academic unit should be operating, which is to conduct impartial, unbiased, objective research in which conclusions are derived after research rather than before it, and in which preconceptions do not influence analysis and experiments.

But let's look at the points French makes. First, he tries to discredit ghost reports by dismissing them as a “sense of a presence being nearby,” implying that sensible people just “shrug off” such a sense. “That paranormal feeling can be induced artificially when brain surgery is carried out," French says. “Different parts of the cortex when stimulated produce experiences like that and that for me is very strong evidence that it’s something in the brain rather than something out there.”

This is a very weak argument. First, the mere “sense of a presence being nearby” is a pretty minor part of ghost reports. The main reason why ghost reports may be worthy of attention is that people actually report seeing ghosts. The mere “sense of a presence being nearby” is just a kind of interesting detail that normally attracts little attention from researchers into ghost reports or the popular press. Explaining that part of ghost reports would still leave one with the far larger problem of explaining reported sightings of ghosts. Secondly, it is clearly fallacious to mention feelings during brain surgery to try to explain anomalous feelings when one is not having brain surgery (because 99.9% of ghost reports come from people who are not undergoing brain surgery). Third, it is absurd to be referring to people's experiences during brain surgery as support for anything, because the last I heard people are totally unconscious when brain surgery is performed on them.

French then attempts to suggest that ghost sightings may be hallucinations, saying "we could all have them under appropriate circumstances." He seems to insinuate that ghost sightings are produced by fear. An interesting hypothesis – you go to a haunted house or graveyard, and then you get scared so bad, you start hallucinating. However, the idea is pure bunk. There is no significant evidence that fear can cause people to have visual hallucinations.

Artisitic depiction of a ghost sighting

This link discusses the reasons for hallucinations, mentioning things such as brain disease, substance withdrawal (such as an alcoholic's delirium tremens or DT's), drowsiness, poisoning, taking certain types of drugs, sensory deprivation, and so forth. There is no discussion at all of hallucinations caused by sudden fears, because there is no real evidence that such a thing can happen. This link mentions dozens of causes of visual hallucinations, but does not list fear or anxiety as a cause.

This PDF discusses dozens of causes of auditory and visual hallucinations, but does not mention fear or anxiety.

If fear were a cause of ghost sightings, then we would often hear about ghost sightings in the situations where people are most afraid. It would be very common to hear reports like the imaginary reports below:

I was there in my foxhole, and the enemy started to shell us with their artillery. I could see and hear shells exploding not far away. Then suddenly I saw a ghost in my foxhole.

As I walked down the narrow dark alley at night, I saw the shape of a big hulking guy ahead of me. I was terrified that he would mug me. Then suddenly I saw a ghost in the alley.

I was driving when the road was rather icy. Suddenly my car went into a 180 degree spin. I was terrified! Then suddenly I saw a ghost in my car.

Nobody makes reports like these, because fear does not cause people to have visual hallucinations of ghosts or anything else.

Looking at it from a Darwinian standpoint of natural selection, it is easy to understand why evolution would probably never allow a situation where fear was the cause of hallucinations. Having hallucinations in a threat situation would lower the chance of an organism surviving. If you have a hallucination while faced with some threat such as an attacking animal, you are less likely to focus on the real threat and survive the situation. Organisms which had such hallucinations would be more likely to die out, less likely to pass on their genes, and more likely to become extinct. 

French also advances a suggestion of mistakes spreading in a fear situation. He gives an example: “If you’re in a reputedly haunted place and someone says they hear footsteps someone will believe them.” So if me and my friend are at a haunted house we think is empty, and my friend says he hears unexplained footprints, that may explain why I think there are unexplained footprints, but it doesn't explain why my friend reported the unexplained footsteps in the first place. Not a very fertile hypothesis.

One reason why French's explanations fall flat is that most reports of ghost encounters do not occur at a moment when people are scared (although fear often follows such claimed encounters). One common type of ghost encounter seems to be what are called “crisis apparitions,” a type where one person reports unexpectedly seeing an apparition of a recently dead person. Cases of this type were exhaustively documented in the classic work Phantasms of the Living (which can be read here). There are also sites that are involved repeatedly in ghost reports, but the “ghost encounters” at such sites seem to occur at unpredictable, random intervals, with typically years between reports. In the latter cases, the reported ghost sighting typically occurs as a sudden surprise, not as something that was preceded by fear.

As I reported in this post, one of the stereotype-busting findings of a recent study on ghost sightings is that 64% of the people reporting sightings said they occurred “during mundane or normal times in their lives.” This is not a finding compatible with the idea that fear causes ghost sightings.

Along with near-death experiences, the phenomenon of apparition sightings is an ongoing thorn in the side of materialists who rigidly cling to the idea that consciousness cannot exist outside of the brain. Conceivably one day after we unravel all the mysteries of the brain, we might have some purely psychological explanation of ghost sightings. But judging from his newspaper interview, French doesn't seem to have got to first base at such a task. If he wants to score on the matter, my first suggestion is that he start out by abandoning the blatantly ideological “we've already made up our mind” attitude glaringly shown on his academic unit's web page, and that he investigate his subject matter in an impartial, objective, unbiased manner, like a good scientist should.